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Wednesday 14 December 2016

Book review - The Traveller

John Katzenbach’s tense psychological thriller The Traveller was published in 1987. He has published a number of crime novels since.

Detective Mercedes Barren is a widow of several years and a cop. She learns of the brutal murder of her niece Susan by a serial killer. Fellow cops eventually track down the culprit and he’s sentenced, though they can’t produce adequate evidence to charge him for Susan’s murder. The murderer is a nut, hearing voices from Allah in his head. A couple of clues, insignificant of themselves, nag at her and she becomes convinced that the nut hadn’t killed Susan; her niece’s death was a copycat.

Douglas Jeffers is a highly successful photographer; he travels all the time, getting scoops with his images of disaster, war and death. This isn’t a whodunit, so we soon realise that Douglas is a nut, too; driven to kill. He kills the kind of girl who’s easily convinced she’s posing for a Playboy centrefold.

Like many sociopaths, Doug wants notoriety, though his kills are usually copycats of other serial murderers. He kidnaps Anne Hampton, an English Lit major. In an unsettling sequence, he tortures and brainwashes her to the point where she will obey him and not seek escape. She becomes his diarist, his Boswell.

Martin is Doug’s younger brother, a psychiatrist. His patients are sex offenders and killers. Martin’s unaware of his brother’s predilection.

As Merce connects the links and finds Martin, the light begins to dawn. The pair hunt Doug; he in the hope of stopping his brother committing any more murders, she to exact vengeance.

There are many tense scenes involving Doug and Anne as his odyssey takes him to old haunts, to the places where he began his extra-curricular career. And there are glimpses of clever prose and characterisation.

Merce enjoyed watching football games. “But why football?” her niece had queried once. And Barren had replied, “Because we all need victories in our lives.” And this is what drives her to track down Susan’s killer – victory over evil personified.

Merce attends the trial of a Colombian immigrant, an accused killer for the illegal drugs industry. ‘Killers were the Kleenex of the drug industry; they were used a few times and then discarded unceremoniously.’ (p42) Nice touch, that.

Despite a tendency to distance the reader from his characters, Katzenbach can tug you in: ‘… she gave in to her sorrow, capitulating to all the resonances of her heart that she’d suppressed so successfully and was suddenly, completely, utterly taken over by tears.’ (p66)

Martin likens his patients to the piano. ‘We keep pushing at the keys, hoping to find a melody, usually discovering dissonance.’ (p137)

Merce has a tragic past; her young brother drowned. ‘She thought for an instant of the potency of fear, undiminished even as it travelled over the decades of memory.’ (p170) There’s quite a bit of fear in these pages, notably experienced by Anne.

There’s a modern obsession, strongly characterised by political correctness, which is not new; definitely imported from America: ‘We live in an enlightened age which is dependent upon euphemism… prisons are correctional facilities, manned not by guards but by correction officers, and prisoners are subjects. If we change the designation, somehow we believe the reality to be less evil and distasteful, though in actuality nothing ever changes.’ (p174) This is one step removed from the knee-jerk need to be offended by terminology.

The trail leads to the place where Doug’s childhood was tainted by adoptive parents. Young lives damaged, which can evoke sympathy, but cannot excuse the multiple murders. Here, it gets a little tense, though the denouement develops into a damp squib. The ending is satisfactory, but only just.

Perhaps the title is not the most appropriate, either. So Doug travels round the country, taking photos and lives. Born to kill might have worked, as this is a quotation from Doug: “She was born to die. I was born to kill. It was simply a matter of finding one another.”

The cover image is a detail from an ‘untitled’ photo-montage for an Australian paperback (Pan). It does the book no favours.

Throughout, I was rooting for both Mercedes and Anne, and I dearly wanted Doug to get his comeuppance, so I kept turning the pages. That’s a good sign.

Editor viewpoint:

There were some annoying writing habits that sometimes detracted from smooth story-telling. 

Frequently, Katzenbach persisted in referring to his heroine and other characters with full names:
Detective Barren did this, Detective Barren thought etc etc. She had a first name, so this should have been used consistently, or even ‘she’ which is unobtrusive and preserves the point of view.

When Martin and Doug are together talking, we read Douglas Jeffers said, and Martin Jeffers laughed; in short, we’re in neither character’s head. Thus we’re not involved.

Head-jumping occurs in scenes, particularly when Anne and Doug are together; it’s never confusing or distracting, and is probably necessary to convey their thought processes as they verbally fence. But the head-jumping does bring us out of the scene, and that’s why it isn’t recommended.

Word misuse; we all do it, I guess. ‘… turned his eyes away suddenly, averting his glance.’ A glance is for a moment, a second or so, not a study or stare, so probably it should have been ‘gaze’ here instead of ‘glance’.

My pet hates are the following: He wondered to himself… She thought to herself…  Well, as they’re thought processes, they must be generated within oneself – unless you’re an adept psychic perhaps! He wondered, she thought is adequate.

But these are quibbles and I could dismiss them to appreciate the story.

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